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Driver Mike Bologna recovers to hold Riverhead lead

A flagman waves the green flag at Riverhead

A flagman waves the green flag at Riverhead Raceway. (July 16, 2011) Credit: Daniel Brennan

It's been a steady climb toward the top for Melville's Mike Bologna this season. After spinning out a fellow driver on opening night, Bologna was penalized and given an 11th-place finish. This put the three-time late model champion in an early hole and, with only 13 races on the schedule, not a lot of time to make it up.

But thanks to relentless consistency, Bologna slowly moved up the standings and, entering Saturday night's season finale, has a 10-point lead on Riverhead's Jeremy McDermott. The lead is a small one. To clinch the title, Bologna would need to stay within five positions of McDermott. Even Massapequa's Kevin Metzger, who sits 20 points back, still has an outside shot at the title, Bologna said.

"It'll be a nail-biter," Bologna, 41, said. "Anything can happen. A flat or accident can take you right out."

Bologna, who is an operating engineer at Malvese Equipment in Hicksville, intends to take a conservative approach to Saturday night's race, knowing that any bout of unnecessary aggressiveness could cost him the championship.

"It becomes a different type of race," he said of driving with the points lead. "It's so much easier to chase points because you have nothing to lose. But once you gain control of the points, you don't want to give any points up. Anything can happen. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be."

The situation is quite different from the one Bologna faced last season. En route to his third career title, he led by 30 points entering the final week. Although theoretically, disaster could have struck and booted Bologna out of the top spot, the race acted as more of a ceremonial celebration.

Not the case Saturday night. It's all business.

"I would love to have gone in like I went in last year," he said. "I want to race. This limits you. You can't really race. It would be foolish for me to go in and try to win. It's not about the win. It's about the culmination of it."

Over-thinking can also cost him. After a long season, any tinkering with the car has been done. Now, it's just about the race.

"I can't do anything differently now than I would normally do with the car," said Bologna, who has won twice this season. "If I tried to make it faster and it didn't work out, there aree no mulligans left."

A championship, should it come, would be his fourth in the last five years. It might also be his last for a while. Bologna said that, due to his lack of sponsorship and his general "financial situation," this will likely be his last full season racing.

"On a good night, without any problems, I'll spend over $700, between tires, racing fuel, entrance fees, etc.," he said. "A good portion of that comes from me. I have a few people that help me financially, but without something changing as far as sponsorship, this will be my last full season."

And what better way to go out, than as a champion.

New York Sports